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January '03: Taxes


August, 2004

For Love of Lager

I want to smack the crap out of British beer drinkers. Not the CAMRA types…well, maybe a little, but for different reasons. The Brits I really want to smack are the so-called "lager louts," those raving drunks who have given Britons a bad name in sports venues across Europe. I could care less about the reputation of the Britons, not being one myself, but these jackasses have also managed to besmirch the dignity of lager. 

It's not because they get drunk on it. The weak, frothy barley broth they drink is not really good for much else, and even Germans get tipsy on their wonderful lagers, though not in such a pugnacious manner. It wouldn't bother me if they were getting boomed up on bitter or mild. They're going to get drunk on something, face that fact, and beer's what they use. Okay, fair enough.

What gravels me something fierce is what they've done to the public perception of the word "lager." It no longer represents the whole class of cold-aged, sharply-focused beers that developed over long centuries in the cool caves and deep cellars of central Europe. The drunken football fans and spineless, tasteless pub denizens have made "lager" synonymous with beer that makes American light beers seem wholesome,  a thin, gassy, pale infusion of barley and maize that has an ever-lower serving temperature as its main selling point. 

Equally annoying and downright disheartening, though, are the anti-lager beer geeks. These are the folks who are supposed to be more cognizant of the full spectrum of beer, from lambics to Baltic porters. Yet so many of them simply do not understand lager beers, dismissing them as bland, uninteresting. They damn them with the faint praise of "They're okay as session beers, but they're not as complex as an imperial stout or barleywine." 

Is that so? As my grandfather used to say when I told him I didn't like sweet potatoes, you need your tongue scraped. Lager beers manage their beauty and complexity at a different level. Lager is all about balance, the delicate balance of malt and hop, yes, and the infinitely teetery balance of factors like mashing temperatures, fermentation regimes, water hardness, aging, maturation temperature... All these things are delicately fiddled with by the brewmaster until the beer is produced, and it may be an okay session beer, it may be a real grabber ("balanced" doesn't mean a beer can't balance heavily on either the hop or malt side of the scale), or it may be an outright masterpiece.

One of the simplest beer masterpieces I've ever met is Augustinerbrau hellesbier. I was lucky enough to get my lips on some two years ago in Germany and it was revelatory. This simple, lightly golden beer was plain, a gently malty beer with the barest hint of hop and a dry malt finish. But as I said when I wrote about it here on the site, "Pale gold, as clear as air, and it tasted like the heavy beer-laden air in a spotlessly clean lager ferment hall, so light and dry and yet jammed full with malt flavor." There was wonder in that beer, and yes, I think I can separate out what we call "the Red Stripe Factor;" I wasn't just amazed by the beer because I was in Munich. To tell the truth, I was tired, I was battling intestinal problems, and I was missing my wife, but the beer blew that all away in one swallow. Here was a beer that carried its "complexity" in its soul, there displayed for anyone with the eyes to see.

Pilsner is equally beautiful, or can be. Talk to an American beer geek about pilsner, and I'll bet the first one they mention is either Victory Prima Pils or Jever. I love these two beers, but they're of the somewhat extreme Frisian style; and when it comes to discussion of whether a geek is hip enough to "get" lagers they are a convenient IPA of the lager world for hopheads to cling to like a baby's teddybear, a hop-soaked suck-toy that lets them prove they're bright enough to understand lager wonder. 

They aren't, I'm afraid: Prima and Jever are excellent beers, but they're excellent not because they have a big hop character, but because they have the framework underneath to pull it off. Try another pilsner, one of the Czechs like Pilsner Urquell, Rebel, or Staropramen, and see what the framework is like without the towering hop superstructure.  That's where the true lager beauty of a pilsner shines forth. 

If you lust for power, lager's got it, of course. Come on up to the next level: bock, doublebock, eisbock, Baltic porter. Still focused, still lager-pure, but much, much bigger. Bocks are still clean, generally, but when you get into the higher ranges, north of 7% ABV, weird little pseudo-esters start to peek around the corners, an effect I puckishly call "the malt overthruster." By the time you get to the 9+% Baltics, with their heavy freight of dark malts, you're finding dark pit fruit notes, winey tones, and roasty, coffee-like flavors you'd expect from an imperial stout; not surprising when you consider their common heritage and parallel evolution. Eisbock has enough sheer power for almost any geek, and the "malt-bomb" effect can be quite intense. 

I challenge beer geeks to stop being ale freaks. Lagers, like lambics, are beers with a deep and wholly valid heritage. Unlike lambics, lagers thrived, and produced the one type of beer -- call it "pilsner," call it "mainstream," call it "international lager" --  that would become the most popular in the world. That one type -- and I do consider "premium," light, dry, ice, and "low carb" to be merely sub-variations of that one type -- has come close to burying all other styles in some places, at some times, and it seems that American beer geeks hold some kind of grudge against lagers in general because of that. 

Carol Stoudt, a noted lager microbrewer, blames the big sellers. "We’re trying to get out from under the Budweiser image," she said. "All the big beers are lagers, and many beer drinkers have written off all lagers as dull because of that." Stoudt likens the prevalent desire for ales and big beers to sensation-starvation: "People who have had nothing but bland lagers for years want the extremes: heavy-handed hops, fruit beers, even smoked beers. As their palates become more sophisticated, they’ll come around to appreciate the subtleties of a good lager beer."

I can only hope. But I do despair sometimes, when I see Carol's excellent Pils ignored in favor of her American Pale Ale, when the only lagers showing up on the beer review websites' top-rated beer lists are doublebocks and Baltics, and when geeks continue to diss lagers as dull and uncomplicated. "Complex" is as much a factor of the drinker as it is of the beer itself. Many beers have subtle complexities that are there for you to discover. If you continue to lash your tongue with hops, you'll never find them. If you insist on beers over 7%, you'll miss the beauties under 5%. 

For the love of lager, I ask you: try lager with open eyes, and an open mind. Find a fresh lager, preferably on draft. Now is a great time of year: this is coming into Oktoberfest season (at least it is for retailers!) and the festbiers are hitting the shelves and the bars. Go get some. Have two. Don't think about the first one, just drink it. Now focus on that second one, and see what's there, what's really there. It's a simple beauty, and if you never walk away from the big, complex, obvious beers, you'll never see it. Or learn to love it. 





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Revised: March 07, 2005